Although few consumers think about it, virtually every chicken breast, pork chop or beef roast they pick up at their local supermarket was once part of a carcass that a federal inspector examined -- however briefly -- as it whizzed through a production line in one of the nation's meat or poultry plants.

Once the carcass is passed by an inspector, it may wind up in a processed product, such as pepperoni pizza, chicken soup or canned ham. In such cases, the inspected meat is reinspected, since even processed products must be produced under the watchful eye of one of USDA's 7,000 federal inspectors.

U.S. law requires this type of intensive inspection for meat and poultry products, which is known as "continuous" because an inspector must be present on a daily basis. But the program has become increasingly expensive and threats of inspector furloughs continually hang in the air. So do charges from consumer groups and others that the system is inadequate -- inspectors can't detect by sight or feel chemical residues or bacteria on meat and poultry that can make people sick. In the meantime, health authorities have become more vocal in their concern about the growing number of food poisoning outbreaks -- and meat and poultry get a large share of the blame.

Officials at the Food Safety and Inspection Service, the USDA agency responsible for meat and poultry inspection, are currently trying to modernize the 80-year-old system amid a barrage of criticism about how they are going about it. The latest plan to upgrade inspection is being heavily promoted by the agency, although many charge that FSIS is more interested in reducing its own costs and keeping the industry happy than in protecting public health.

"USDA's approach to modernization is for fewer inspectors to spend less time looking at more food whizzing by at drastically faster line speeds. That's a recipe for food poisoning," said Thomas Devine, legal director at the Washington, D.C.-based Government Accountability Project, a group that provides protection to federal employees who "blow the whistle" on government practices.

"Clearly the level of inspection needs to be improved," said Carol Tucker Foreman, an assistant secretary of agriculture during the Carter administration and now a public policy consultant. During the same period that the agency has tried to modernize its inspection system, Foreman charged, the level of food-borne illness has increased.

There are no studies showing how the changes in inspection over the years have affected the numbers of people becoming sick from salmonella and other bacteria that are often found in raw meat and poultry. A National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study conducted for FSIS in 1985 recommended that such studies be funded, and concluded that without the research, it was difficult to determine how well the current system or changes to it protected consumers from disease. A more recent NAS report on a new cattle inspection procedure reached similar conclusions.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, it is not known whether food-borne diseases in general are increasing or decreasing, but some types of illnesses -- like those caused by salmonella -- are definitely on the rise. "We need to get more sophisticated in what we're doing to prevent {food-borne illness} from happening," said Lester Crawford, administrator of FSIS.

Over the last decade, there has been no shortage of programs designed to modernize inspection. Nearly all have been controversial. In traditional slaughter inspection, inspectors examine every carcass and organ, looking for diseases that would result in it being condemned. In processing plants, rather than examining each product in the line, inspectors check that the plant is using the correct procedures to produce the product.

The goal of many of the new programs has been to maintain the same health protections with fewer inspectors. For example, the streamlined inspection system, used in poultry slaughter plants and currently being piloted in cattle slaughterhouses, uses plant employees to do some of the trimming and checking traditionally reserved for inspectors. The total quality control program, which plants can agree to use voluntarily, is aimed at getting plant managers to take more responsibility for the outcome of their products, rather than relying on federal inspectors to check for quality.

The agency's latest plan is to require that meat and poultry plants implement a program to constantly monitor the points in the production line most critical to food safety. Known as the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point system, "HACCP" has been hailed by FSIS officials as the ultimate solution to their inspection problems because it would rely on prevention rather than on the inspector trying to finding a problem in the finished product. The agency plans to implement HACCP in both slaughter and processing plants over the next two years.

Devine is skeptical about the plan, charging that HACCP is another name under which FSIS will continue to justify the faster line speeds and fewer inspectors characteristic of its other modernization programs. "The Department intends to put a new package around an old present," he charged. "If USDA continues with its current approach, HACCP will be a longer set of capital letters for de facto deregulation where inspection is replaced with a corporate honor system."

There is little debate that HACCP, when used by the industry as a management tool in sophisticated food processing plants, can improve food safety. David Theno, an industry consultant from Modesto, Calif., who has worked for a variety of large food corporations, said HACCP systems are used in most complex food operations. "You can't afford not to know what's going on in your operation," he said, noting that HACCP systems "are, by their very nature, preventive." He is hopeful that HACCP will help the agency focus on the most hazardous aspects of production.

Crawford has pledged that HACCP implementation will not reduce the current number of inspectors, and that inspection will remain "continuous" -- inspectors will remain in plants on a daily basis.

An attempt several years ago to limit the number of inspectors in plants met with almost universal opposition. FSIS had lobbied Congress for a change in its law to allow meat and poultry processing plants -- those that produce sausages and hams, for example, but do not slaughter animals -- to operate without a federal inspector in the plant at all times.

After Congress granted the change, FSIS then proposed to permit "discretionary inspection," where plants with good compliance histories would be inspected less often than plants with more violations. The resulting outcry from industry, consumer groups, and the inspectors' union over the plan eventually led FSIS to drop it.

"The public would not buy the rationale that they were getting better inspection with fewer inspectors," said Crawford about the failed plan. "They would have, but they wouldn't buy it." He said the money saved from the additional inspections would have gone to pay for more laboratory testing of products.

Foreman calls the discretionary inspection proposal "the damndest mess I ever saw in my whole life." She said the plan illustrates how USDA has specialized in "fudging the language of science without creating the science. {The proposal} wasn't science-based."

In order for HACCP to work, the agency must conduct basic research, such as how much bacteria makes people sick, said Foreman. Without that research, she warned, "It's like trying to build a building and starting it on the second floor. Gravity will bring it crashing down, and I think that's what will happen with HACCP."

According to Foreman, one of the main problems at the agency is the lack of broad scientific expertise among the staff, who are mostly veterinarians. "We're not trying to keep pigs healthy. We're trying to keep people healthy," she said. The NAS study recommended that scientists in other disciplines be recruited. Crawford said the agency is gradually hiring more food scientists and training its veterinarians in other public health specialties.

However, as far as HACCP research, Crawford maintained that there is already plenty of data. Agency officials already have sought input from industry, consumer groups and the inspectors' union about how to implement HACCP. USDA is also holding a series of workshops beginning next month.

FSIS also has been conducting research in a poultry slaughtering plant in Puerto Rico for the past several years to find out where in the slaughtering process birds might be spreading harmful bacteria, but has so far refused to divulge the results. A former agency microbiologist, Gerald Kuester, publicly accused FSIS last year of hiding the damaging news that nearly 80 percent of the birds that left the plant were salmonella-contaminated.

"You never release scientific data until it's been peer reviewed, and it will be," Crawford said of the Puerto Rican study. Since the study was begun, however, its focus has shifted to finding ways to prevent the birds from coming into the plants contaminated, since it appears difficult with current slaughtering methods to keep contamination from spreading to other birds.

Kuester is one of about 120 federal inspectors and employees who have come to GAP concerned that FSIS modernization programs were compromising the public health. The majority, said Devine, have come over the last three years. "They have everything to lose and nothing to gain" by speaking publicly, he noted.

Crawford said the inspectors are concerned about loss of jobs under the modernization programs, adding that in some whistle-blower cases, "there's a little bit of showmanship." He said inspectors should contact USDA's Office of Inspector General if they have concerns.

The agency's major constraint in modernization, Crawford predicted, will be the budget. After the discretionary inspection plan was withdrawn, he said, the Office of Management and Budget and USDA agreed that the inspection force would not be reduced, and that FSIS would be given more money to improve inspection through HACCP and stepped up residue testing.

When agency funding almost ran out last year, meat and poultry plants were faced with shutting down since they cannot operate under law without inspection presence. Congress came through with emergency appropriations. "It will be a taxing exercise each year," Crawford said.

Patricia Picone Mitchell is a Washington freelance writer who covers the government's regulatory agencies.